Who does the USDA really represent? Surely not the public’s welfare

Genetically engineered Diamond back moth by Oxitec

With all the hoopla across the country about whether or not to pass legislation that would give the public the right to know what’s in the food we eat and about preventing carcinogenic pesticides from being used on our food crops, the idea that the U.S. Department of Agriculture would flagrantly disregard concerns of environmentalists and concerned citizens seems at odds with its public charter. Yet that’s apparently what’s happened.

In September 2014, several environmental, advocacy and organic farming organizations commented on the USDA’s environmental assessment (EA) for the proposed field release of Oxitec’s GE diamondback moths at Cornell University’s agricultural experiment station in Geneva, New York. The agency did not contact the organizations to address their myriad concerns, and months later, the groups found out through a separate correspondence with the USDA that the GE moth permit had been quietly approved, with no press release or other public notification. And apparently Cornell has been quietly conducting experimental releases of these GE moths.

Oxitec is a company developed by researchers from Oxford University, with close links to the multinational seed and agrichemical firm Syngenta. From March 2009 to June 2011, Oxitec received research funding directly from Syngenta for genetic transformation of Lepidoptera, the insect order that includes the diamondback moth (Plutella xylostella).

“This release of genetically engineered autocidal moths is the first of its kind in the United States and it sets a very poor precedent that they were released with minimal environmental review and transparency,” said Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch. “The USDA’s irresponsible management of this genetically engineered insect is putting the environment and agriculture at risk.”

“The USDA took comments on whether this first genetically engineered insect should be released for field trials and then without responding to our comments approved the trials without public notice,” said Jaydee Hanson, Senior Policy Analyst at Center for Food Safety. “The first use of GE insects in an agricultural setting should have required public consultations with potentially affected parties, as well as trials in physically enclosed spaces before even considering open field trials. This violates one of the basic principles of biosafety for genetically engineered organisms—that they should be physically constrained in trials, not openly released.”

In its environmental assessment, the USDA failed to recognize that if the larval stage GE moths were present on certified organic or non-GE farms near the field trial sites, their certification could be lost because genetic engineering, even for pest control, is prohibited. With no prior public information, accidental escapes and contamination would be a significant issue for nearby fields.

“The USDA has dropped the ball by approving this field trial without a thorough review and without notifying New York’s organic farmers,” said Anne Ruflin, Executive Director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York. “The loss of certification would be a major economic problem for these operations, threatening future earnings from their crops and wiping out a major investment of time and money to get the certification. If GE contamination occurs, it has the potential to not only permanently damage long-standing partnerships with organic buyers but also to destroy an organic farmer’s livelihood and standing in the community.”

“The USDA and Cornell must put a stop to this activity and ensure that these insects have been thoroughly reviewed before they are released into the wild,” said Lisa Archer, Friends of the Earth Food & Technology Program Director.

Will the USDA pay attention or is it a case of shutting the barn door after the horse is already out? Probably the latter. And what will be the ramifications of this so-called irresponsible action by our esteemed federal guardian of our food’s safety? Not enough is known and the concerns for this are very valid. Guess it’s a case of crossing our fingers and hoping that these pesky GE insects don’t screw up our food – and organic farmers fields and crops – big time. And that’s always useful, right?

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